Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ants in the Pantry, or Dust With Legs

About a year ago, our house underwent a serious invasion. Tiny ants began to show up here and there inside. I had heard of tiny Argentine ants having invaded California, forming super colonies that somehow communicate across vast distances. I guessed that these were those, and felt strangely ready to surrender without a fight.

After repeated pressure from family members, however, I finally found the bottle of ant poison that had disappeared into the fabric of the house's disorder since the last invasion of (larger) ants. The new invaders took to the ant poison, though not as avidly as could be desired, and there was this sinking feeling that these highly successful creatures would quickly evolve a biochemical way of turning the poison into fuel to further energize their expansion into new spaces.

Soon thereafter, a new thoroughfaire of ants was discovered leading to a stronghold in a spider plant sitting on a metal stand in the dining room. The ants had apparently decided to make our house into a medieval landscape dotted with kingdoms.
By this time, my youngest daughter had already abandoned the upstairs bathroom, unable to coexist with such creepy creatures.

Unlike ants in the past, which would pick their spots and stick to accustomed routes, these tiny ants would spread out across the kitchen counter and into other rooms. They seemed determined to explore and ultimately occupy every square foot of surface area--walls, family room chairs, the piano. In the study, one crossed the computer screen while another did a high wire act on my glasses.

Sweeping the guest room one day, I looked down to find that the dust was not staying swept, but instead scampered off in all directions. At that point, the ants were christened "dust with legs".

It was time for action, but I was still preoccupied with the deeper meaning of such tiny creatures having their way in a house of giants. If they were larger, I would have taken action weeks ago, but their smallness, the certainty that squashing any one of them, or even a dozen, would be meaningless compared to their infinite capacity to create more, left me paralyzed. I had become like one of the philosophers in the Monty Python soccer game that pits the Greek philosophers against the Germans, all of whom stroll about the field stroking their beards instead of kicking the ball. The ability of the ants to so thoroughly invade without triggering action correlated with my observation that climate change works similarly, baffling humanity with even smaller malefactors, operating at a scale below our perception, tweaking the atmosphere and ocean day by day until we wake up to a permanently altered world.

Finally, my spouse decided to take matters into her own hands. Where, she must have wondered, was the man who had saved her from an infestation of cockroaches, early on in a cramped Michigan apartment? She took emphatic action, dumping borax copiously along edges of counters. I searched labels and the internet for evidence that this lavish spreading of chemicals was putting us at risk, but found little beyond warnings for pregnant women. Interestingly, the ant poison that I had taken great precautions with turned out to be nothing more than dilute borax in a bottle.

The borax did suppress the ant presence, though not completely. Fortunately, I happened to talk to a friend who suggested a poison available in a gel form. I found it at the hardware store, with the endearing name: Combat Source Kill Max, which comes with a syringe applicator. We dabbed some in just a few strategic spots, and the ants promptly disappeared, without any further applications necessary. As Archimedes said at the pivotal moment in Monty Python's soccer game, Eureka!


  1. There's a great short podcast about the Argentine ant invasion I heard on RadioLab and how they moved across the world.

  2. There's a great, short, clip about Argentine ants I heard on RadioLab and how they moved across the world.